They call Hanoi “the Paris of Asia”. The shaded boulevards, gentle lakes and majestic monuments are a perfect background for its enchanting people.
The heartbeat of the city is in the Old Quarter built from a crocodile swamp 2000 years ago. It was once full of artists, craftsmen and small shopkeepers, who made and sold their goods from their narrow homes. While the origin of the products may have changed, the rest hasn't. It's a place to get lost in, meandering through the small streets cluttered with two-wheeled vehicles.
The best time is morning, when the Pho pots are churning and the Steamed Rice Noodle (Banh Cuon) stands are shaping scrumptious pillows of ground pork, mushrooms and dried shrimp. I can't resist, so I pull up a stool. The proprietress ladles the thin mixture of rice flower and water over a stretched cloth that rests comfortably on a makeshift steamer. With one hand, she spreads it in a circular motion while reaching for a ruler shaped stick with the other. In a flowing motion, she lifts the shinny noodle from the steamer and quickly rolls it with pork mixture. I have two helpings, just so I can stay and watch.
You don't bother with street names -- they change as fast as the traffic and make about as much sense. I stroll for hours passing colorful shops, boring Pagodas and an old man fixing an equally aged bike. Somehow, I always end up at Hoan Kiem Lake, where couples are playing badminton and young boys are fishing who seem oblivious to what might be dangling at the other end of the stick. All around is food: bakeries, cafes, ice cream carts. Always hungry, I head up to the open market off of Pho Hang Be Street, where I blend into a crowd of students on lunch break. I just walk and snack -- it's as delicious and relaxing as an afternoon in bed; you just want to grab the arm of a lover nestle on a park bench.
My romantic interludes notwithstanding ultimately took the form of more practical endeavors. I went to work at the Metropole Hotel. Built in 1901, it has the grace and beauty of a mythical Queen. Through its classic white facade and green shutters lay breezy walkways, sleepy gardens and twisting trees. I passed through the lobby with my dirty flip flops on the well-traveled hardwood floors, where prime ministers, royalty and Charlie Chaplin once strode. Most hotels destroy a town -- this one is an essential part of it. During World War ll, the Japanese elite used it as barracks, minus the spa, I think. So close was the American bombing of the Long Bien Bridge, the hotel had to construct an air raid shelter for its guests and staff. Like its French Colonial character, their innovative chef, Didier Corlou has adopted Vietnam as home. His love for Vietnam and its food has culminated in three books, the Spices Garden restaurant and a lovely family.
I cruise the restaurant and then the kitchen, leaving bewildered waitresses in my path. "No sir, no sir", she pleaded, "hotel not that way". I just smiled. The chef was in his office, surrounded by a team of good looking Vietnamese women with tall chef hats. He politely waved me in and suggested that I begin my “stage” with a walking tour of the market and a cooking class. Well, I'd seen the brochure and that costs about a hundred big ones, so I smiled and happily obliged. Little did he know that I was once the Walking Tour God of the Pike Place Market (in fact, I think the Seattle City Council is considering replacing that silly iron pig with a small statue of me nibbling on an organic breakfast radish.) He introduces me to the Vietnamese chef and we head off to meet the others. The tour was a blast! It so much fun to be on the other side and it made me realize just how dumb I must have looked in my Market heyday. Once, I showed up 50 minutes late, about killed five people trying to navigate a parking spot and, yet, the 25 expectant Tour-goers were still gathered around that pig waiting for me. Why did I ever leave that job?.
We toured the fruit first: Custard Apples with creamy flesh dotted with tiny black pips; Pomelo, the oversized grapefruit; Mangosteen, light puple skin and green sepals with a lovely sweet and sour flavor. Mrs. Tran Thi sped along as I tried to take pictures, notes and eat simultaneously. It was the dried goods that I found most interesting. I tour the markets daily, but rarely with someone that could explain how to use each ingredient. There were bags of sour dried fruits that are used in soups as a souring agent; "what's the name of the fruit?” I ask. "Yes, dried fruit." "Yeah, I see that they’re dried, but what type of dried fruit?" "Yes, dried fruit!" I wander on my own for a bit and find more dried stuff: lotus embryo, white radish, bamboo shoots, artichoke petals and Indian taro were just a few. I imagine most of it is made into tea or used to flavor soups and sauces, but I think I had used up my allotted questions. Drying is such a potent and useful technique for preservation purposes and flavor. Back at the restaurant, we were treated to a tasty cooking presentation and then I was off to the kitchen.
One of the pleasant surprises in Asian kitchens is women -- both in quantity and rank. The chef and sous chefs were all female. I got put on wrapping detail: spring rolls, dim sum and something more like an empanada. I was slow, but diligent. They made fun of me and I asked a bunch of questions. I spent about four days there and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Vietnamese food is so fresh and vibrant; I could eat it everyday with no problem. At one lunch, Didier made a soup of fresh crab, wild cress, ginger and water that was so clean that it enlivened my day.
On one night, Didier invited me to come to the upscale modern French restaurant at the other end of the hotel. It was much more serious, both in cuisine and vibe. Before the chef arrived, I could tell the cooks weren’t sure what the hell I was doing there -- a yellow fella that speaks English, trailing in a French kitchen. The mood changed quickly once the chef showed. It was fun to watch the blending of culture, both nationally and professionally. The foods blend easily, French and Vietnamese, but the intensity and focus of a French kitchen seemed difficult for some of the Vietnamese to grasp. Didier managed with the typical French demeanor – toughness, followed with compassion. He's a humble guy and his food revealed his diverse background. There were aspects of his food that were classic: bold sauces and heavy starches. But then, there were presentations and witty combinations using Asian goods with the subtlety that only comes from someone who truly understands the ingredients.
They bang out a wine party of 25 and some of the guests come back to greet Didier. After a few introductions, I hear someone say "New York…you know that Kitchen Confidential guy, man he's a lot of fun". I explain that I actually did meet Tony Bourdain shortly before leaving on my trip and that he told me to look up the chef at the Press Club. "That's me", he says with a big grin, "I'm Donald Berger. I met Anthony a few years ago; hey, you should come to our Valentine's dinner party tomorrow night". It really is a small fraternity.
I get all dressed up: Paper Denim jeans, DL Cerney linen shirt and converse canvas tennis -- it's the best I could do. Along the way, my cyclo driver points out a string of restaurants where the feature food is man's best friend and, on the other side of the highway, the homes of the wealthy. Consulates, diplomats, dignitaries and dogs -- what a perfect place for a wine bar. The place is called Vine Wine Bar. It's a small townhouse with vine-covered walls and beautifully decorated, with a combination of western and Vietnamese furniture. In the back is a long spiral staircase, which we take up to the third floor where the Valentine’s party is. I approach the table and it appears that everyone else has been there awhile. There's a noticeable absence of the female gender and it also seems that I'm more than a bit underdressed. Donald seats me and disappears into the kitchen. It was hardly romantic, but the food and wine were pretty sexy, especially for a guy that hasn’t seen a table cloth, a wine glass or a piece of Foie Gras for a long time. I think I met the Argentinean consulate and, definitely, the GM of the Metrepole Hotel. I luckily sat next to an Australian wine guy, who had just finished up working at Chez Bruce in London. We talked about restaurants from Sydney to London and drank more wine than I care to remember (or can remember). It was a strong dose of the life I have left behind. And, it left me pondering that life, almost romantically.
The bus swerves to make a sudden turn; most of us are awakened as our heads bounce off the windows. Outside the darkness lingers in the coastal air. A few lights begin to flicker as we roll lazily into town. I scurry to gather my belongings: CDs, cameras, a wadded-up shirt pretending to be a pillow. My already sore back stiffens from holding the pretzel position for twelve long hours as I consider the alternative options. Night travel saves a night’s lodging and moves you to the next town. The top five things one should remember about traveling by bus overnight: 1) Bring along padded DJ head phones and a selection of mellow CDs, other than music, they make a nice buffer for when the French men behind you decide to get wasted and consequently argue. 2) Expect the unexpected. Listed travel times are merely a nice idea. 3) Arrive early to get an actual seat. The bus may seat 26, but it fills at 35; try riding in the aisle sometime, sandwiched between a bushel of watercress and a spare barrel of gas. 4) Getting drunk with the French guy behind you is a bad idea, unless your bladder is somehow synchronized to the bus driver’s. 5) Never, ever, ever, board the bus without Ambien.
The bus driver generally drops you off at a relative’s guesthouse -- it's an advanced network of cousins. At 5:00 am, I'm not interested in bargain hunting, so I take the first room I see. As a cook, I rarely rise before 10:00 am and by then, the markets have already lost their luster. So, a side benefit from night travel is it gets you up at the crack of dawn. Still a bit drowsy, I grab a map and head for the river market. Do I love mornings because I never see them or because there's something fresh and wonderful about being one of the first people on the street? It's cool, calm and misty and I find myself hearing things before seeing them.
I turn right after the temple and head pass the "Olympic stadium"; forgive
me, but I don't recall Hoi An ever hosting the Olympics. It's a large field with
a better-than-average dry grass to dirt ratio. A few mopeds approach, then whisk
by, a shop owner stumbles out to lift the gate on his store, while the sounds of
pots and woks come from across the street. Curious, I go to check it out. A
middle-aged woman and her daughter are setting up their food stall. The girl
stokes the meager flame with a plastic bag held between two chopsticks. The
mother begins carefully slicing the violently red beef. In the States, most Pho
beef is both aged and frozen, then put on an automatic slicer. Slicing fresh
meat is difficult -- the meat is full of blood and so relaxed that it has very
little form. Together, they lift the pot of broth to the stove and I get the
first whiff: charred onion, cinnamon and the perfume of sweet marrow. I leave
quickly before I end up staying.
Hoi An is a quaint, picturesque coastal town in Central Vietnam. It was once a major port for trade with the Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese and Dutch. Their influence is part of the old world charm and uniqueness of the architecture: historic bridges and tiny streets. I walk toward the river, passing flaxen houses with red tiled roofs and small temples hidden by scattered trees and long courtyards. A morning wind rushes around the corner as I came upon the Thu Bon River. Two elderly ladies push and pull a large wooden cart full of bricks as people bustled about. Yoke bearing women carry bushels of tiny clams and lake snails at both ends of a long bamboo pole that rests upon their shoulders. Others balance large baskets of fresh herbs and lettuces on their heads as most everyone walks down towards the market. Just short of the market, I stop to soak up the vibe; I get goose bumps, I'm so excited. You know when you've just scalped playoff tix and you’re entering Madison Square Garden with thousands of screaming fans? There was a time when that used to happen and you’re so psyched that your body parts don't always work in unison. I think cooks get that way when we're around fresh and unusual ingredients.
Once in the market, I hear yelling coming from out by the river. I elbow my way through the crowd to find about a dozen women fighting over a basket of fish. In the center of the quarrel is a lady desperately trying to maintain control of her basket while the angry shoppers are grabbing at the fish and one another. As in turns out, she's a wholesaler, selling the fish her family had just caught; she's like the Rod Mitchell of Hoi An and the fish vendors all want her product. It's settled quickly as the fish gets swooped up and somehow divided between the mob. Now, the poor fishmonger has to go around and collect money for fish she had never had a chance to weigh – that, of course, leads to numerous more arguments. I stay outside and watch as more fisher-ladies propel up the river in flat timber boats, carefully balancing their goods. The market is in full swing -- there's catfish, serpent fish, fish that looked like little whales, eels, cuttlefish, shrimp and lots of crab.
Each vendor, while squatting on a table or the floor, is busy prepping; some
scaling and gutting live fish, others picking the meat out of the tiniest clam
shells, or slowly passing miniature crabs through a hand-propelled grinder. The
muddy green ooze that passes out is used to make soups and pastes. There are
also stands selling my favorite fermented fish and it's many variations.
You've got two day, one month and the super skanky one year, all made simply from layering different types of fish, usually whole with salt and, occasionally, some aromatics. They place them in wooden barrels and let nature do its thing. This is not to be confused with Nuoc Mam, the fish sauce we find tableside in restaurants in the States, which is made from a specific type of fish similar to an anchovy, but is strained off and, ultimately, has a very different flavor. Ba La and a host of other types of fermented fish and fish bladders are not strained and their rootsy, pungency characterizes many of my favorite dishes throughout SE Asia.
Nearby, I find a fella selling his version of Man Tum Chua, a condiment made from dried fresh shrimp, powdered galanga, chilies, salt and sugar. It's also left to brew and then often jarred to be eaten with rice noodles, green carambola, ginger, dill and banana.
Back in the market, I come across the fresh noodle stands where the dough is rolled out and cut into noodles before your eyes. Hoi An is famous for a dish called Coa Lau, where the noodles are made with well water . According to many, the dish is only good here because of the water. I have a feeling it has more to do with those ladies making the "pasta". I sit down by a bunch of vendors having their morning meal. I ask for Coa Lau and they all smile. She boils the noodles, then tosses them in a light rosy broth and places them neatly in a bowl; from several bouquets, she picks Bac Ha (a form of mint), holy basil and several other enticing herbs and leaves. She then adds thinly sliced pork, a few sheets of pork fat and tops it off with crushed peanuts. Along side is a plate of halved citrus; it has the taste and looks of a lime and a mandarin orange that mated. I suck down a few bites and smile with appreciation, I'm not sure if it's Coa Lau, but it has a fresh and vibrant feel to it and the bitter and sour herbs go perfectly with the rich tastes of pork fat and the juicy sweet citrus.
I'm not a snobbish fella. I figure if you wanna eat a bat's liver, or sleep
with a prostitute that just had sex with your friend, that's your prerogative.
I've got enough problems of my own to be bothered by the desires of the really
bored. Sure, there are those that will cry the bat is an endangered species, or
having sex with a prostitute is demeaning to women, and I understand. It's a
cruel world and thank god someone has the time to save it. It's still a matter
of freedom, whether your selling live lizard meat, or the glories of your
natural beauty, it's your right. "Pet or Meat" your either one or the
BATS FOR DINNER IN NAH TRANG
Nah Trang is full of idiots that wallow in this type of shit. They come for
the sun and the midnight fun. We met up with the gals from Da Lat and cruised
the town. A bar owned by a couple guys from Vancouver BC were throwing a Cobra
party. Six-foot long cobras withering about, while drunken Brits trying to prove
their manhood tossed back beer. It's like Spring Break for the lost traveler.
Two Vietnamese hold the snake and slit it’s throat, then pour it's blood into
shot glasses with rice wine. The Vietnamese believe by drinking the blood and
eating the heart while it's still beating you improve your libido. Well, I don't
have much use for that, not unless I suddenly find prostitution desirable. I'm
sorry but what's so sexy about prostitution? Is it because it's a stranger? Or
it’s taboo? There's nothing erotic about the whole transaction for me, so I’ll
just drink my cobra blood and go make love to myself.
ANA MANDARA RESORT
Not all of Nah Trang pans out to be like my first night. The beach is nice and the ocean soothing. I take respite at the Ana Mandara Resort. Located at the outskirts of town hidden from the rest of the world. It caters to the well to do. It's little bungalows, stone paths and palm trees are as peaceful as they are beautiful. The pool and outdoor Cabana style restaurant sit right on the beach, perfect for a day of lounging and swimming. I had thought that the reasoning behind putting pools on the beach was to wash the salt and sand from your body but I think now it's to allow parents to fall asleep while their kids swim. I enjoy my first pizza since being in Asia; it's topped with local seafood like cuttlefish, shrimp and ocean snails. It's surprisingly good, while it's no Lombardi's, you can hear the surf. I leave the plush confines of the resort and walk down the beach towards my humble dwelling.
ANA MANDARA RESORT
The last of the sun is near while the children wrestle in the waves. A group of boys set up a make shift soccer field in the sand while others smoke cigarettes and drink whisky. The tourists have left; fair weather sunbathers have no need for the cool evening breeze. Now is the time for the beach masseuses, hair braiders and food peddlers to indulge.
BOYS PLAYING SOCCER
SOCCER ON THE BEACH
GIRLS SWIMMING ON THE BEACH
At night we go look up the fella's that have the restaurant that serve the wild animals. There out in the slummy part of town. It's a destination type of locale. Out in front there’re cages, ponds, aviaries and pens housing turtles, fruit bats, anteaters, doves, rodents, pythons, cobras and monkeys. If you not hungry you might just swing by for the petting zoo. My Dad used to take me to this place in the foothills of Los Angeles where you'd fish for a trout before dinner. My parents were divorced so this was our little Sunday date. I liked the idea that you took part in the capture of your dinner. There's some hunting-man thing that we all crave. I settle for snake, it's familiar territory. It's not wimpy and I won't have to explain it to my animal rights activist mother. I respect the culture in which these animals are eaten. There are beliefs both medicinal and mystical that embody this cuisine though my hunch is it may have more to do with economics now. Like whale hunting, eating the brains out of a live monkey might be pushing the cultural heritage thing a bit far. I can't help thinking what it would be like to take a first date here; you'd certainly have a lot to argue about. It makes our recent Foie Gras concerns look pale. I'm with Alice Water's, there are better things to worry about, say-people.
As it turns out, snake tastes like chicken with lots of little bones in it. The night is interesting if not memorable. It's good to know you don't always need a super market to eat. I wonder what NYC rats taste like? Probably like the mystery meat on the combo platter three doors down on Mulberry Street.
When your traveling on a budget lodging becomes the crucial cost savior. During my last trip to Tuscany, I paid on average about $180 a night. Why not? I had the big job, and I was long overdue for a vacation. Twenty years ago when I hitch hiked from France to Greece I lived on $7 a day. At this point in my life I'm a bit more practical. I stay at Guest Houses along with the backpackers and locals and then swim and work out at luxurious 5 star hotels. It's a nice balance and it keeps me sane
The guest house game is tricky -- there are definitely some dives about, but in Ho Chi Minh City, I found a bit of paradise. For a whopping $11 a night, I'm living in a lovely balcony room with all the amenities. Even better, it's located just at the edge of District 1 and the center of town, yet has all the charm of a local neighborhood.
I wake up each morning shower and wash my clothes; I do both at the same time, it saves on water and you only get wet once. I hang my shirts on the balcony and I'm off to the morning ritual. It's about 7:30 am and the air is cool and the sun warming. Breakfast isn't far, it's at a five-seat stall across the street, about 20 feet away. I dodge a few kids peddling to school and a wheelbarrow full with watermelons, and perch myself on an empty stool. I smile at the elderly lady who leans back and ladles some congee from a simmering pot, then pulls out a pair of very large scissors and thinly shreds feathery strains of dried fish. Motor bikes screech by, as the patrons next to me giggle and make odd gestures at my red toe nail. Our cook reaches below the table to a bowl resting on the street and grabs a salted fertilized egg. Rolling it in her hands, she breaks and peels away the shell, then pulls out a wood-handled cleaver and slices it down the middle; its yolk is a bloody orange and has the smell to match. She places it before me along with the rice porridge and dried fish -- breakfast is served. Lacking confidence in my understanding of the local cuisine, hands appear from both sides of me -- one crumbling the egg over the rice and the other passing a small bowl of fried shallots my way. I appreciate the concern and had it been lunch or dinner I'd certainly feel differently, but breakfast is sacred and you need a little space even if you are eating on the street. If we were at Denny's or a Diner down in the Village, could you see somebody pouring ketchup or maple syrup on a bewildered foreigner’s ranch-style breakfast? No way. I gently turned to my breakfast companions and with my almond-shaped eyes reassured them that I had things under control. The rice soup was hot and creamy, I tasted each ingredient first to determine how much to mix in. The egg was extremely salty, the shavings sweet, sour and fishy and the fried shallots were an earthy blend of bitter and caramel. All this mixed with such a wonderful canvas of porridge, it was perfect.
I spent the day out and about in various parts of town and returned home in the late afternoon. The neighborhood was filling as the adults were returning from work. A whole new set of street stalls were setting up as the lunch carts broke down. The cafes were full of tea and rice wine drinkers and the kids kicked soccer balls up and down the street. I grabbed some jeans that needed to be hemmed and brought them to a seamstress who had set up out in front of a small café. I tried to explain I wanted them to hang down and touch the ground. She wasn't hip to that style.
While I waited, I purchased a drink made by a lady with a small cart housing a round well full of rice milk. She flavored each drink with some concentrated extracts, shook them up with some ice and strained them into either a plastic bag with a straw or a glass for those staying near by. I had the green tea-flavored drink in a glass. My pants took 12 minutes and cost 25 cents. She nailed the length and matched up the thread color and pattern perfectly. If only Barneys new about her.
Some nights, I just stayed in the hood. On one particular night, I walked around for about two hours, taking pictures and just absorbing the life. I did that in Sunset Park in Brooklyn too, but without the camera. There's something about a real neighborhood of people that have lived in a place for years and years -- where three generations of family sit out in front of their houses, barefoot and chillin’. The kids are playing, dad's smokin’ on one of those bamboo bong-like pipes and the ladies, young and old, just chattin’ away.
It just puts something in the air, and when the sun comes down and the colors illuminate, then gradually fade, you know it's time to find your stool at local Pho stand. Out in front of my Internet hang, was this lady who just flat out made the freshest tasting Pho I've had. She was very particular about her routine. If you came before she was fully ready she would shoosh you away. By night fall, she was always in full gear. She had two types of Pho: the classic one with the clear beef broth made from fresh bones, star anise, cinnamon, black cardamom, grilled onions and ginger. Hers is clear, clean and flavorful. For the other type, she threw everything in it -- from stewed meat, tendons, chilies, tomato, to unidentified spices and floating stuff. Both were served over noodles, though different types, and an exquisite array of herbs and leafy things. I love Pho and have so for many years, but the pungent herbs here bring it to a whole other level. The noise, smells and flavor of my new neighborhood help too.